Inside Charter School Growth: The Emergence of Non-District Authorizers

During the past five years, a significant shift has occurred within the national charter school landscape: for the first time, most new charter schools are being opened under entities other than local school districts.

If the trend continues, it could have both positive and negative implications for the pace of charter school growth, quality of charter schools, quality of oversight, and attributes of newly approved schools. We explore these implications further in an accompanying commentary.

We examined all new charter school openings by authorizer type from the year that openings peaked (2013) through the last year of available data (2016).

This brief report presents four sets of data that reflect this shift. Overall, we find that:

  1. The proportion of new charter schools authorized by all non-district authorizers increased from 44 percent in 2013 to 59 percent in 2016. During that time, the proportion of new charter schools authorized by school districts decreased from 56 percent to 41 percent.
  2. Independent charter boards and state education agencies most consistently authorized new schools between 2013 and 2016. Most (70 percent) of these bodies authorized a new school in three or more of the four years studied. By comparison, only 4 percent of school districts authorized a new school in three or more of these four years.
  3. Authorizers of all types opened fewer new schools over time, but the magnitude of the drop by school district authorizers is striking. As a group, school districts authorized 222 fewer new charter schools in 2016 than in 2013. This drop is nearly 2.5 times larger than the decrease in new school openings by all other authorizing types combined (92).
  4. School districts of all sizes authorized fewer charter schools over time, but the largest decline was by small school district authorizers. School district authorizers with fewer than five charter schools opened 110 fewer new schools in 2016 than in 2013, a net drop twice as large as school district authorizers with more than five schools.

Note: Each authorizer has the agency to approve new school applications, thus allowing a new charter school to open in its jurisdiction. For readability throughout this brief, we sometimes use “open” as shorthand for this work.


Most New Charter Schools Are Now Opened Under Entities Other Than Local School Districts (LEA)

The proportion of new charter schools opened by all authorizers other than school districts (LEA) shifted from 44 percent in 2013 to 59 percent in 2016. This change was driven nearly exclusively by increases in new schools authorized by independent chartering board and state education agency authorizers and decreases by school district authorizers.

FIGURE 1: PERCENT OF NEW CHARTER SCHOOLS OPENED BY AUTHORIZER TYPE


Independent Chartering Boards and State Education Agencies Most Consistently Authorized New Charter Schools

From 2013 to 2016, the majority (70 percent) of statewide independent chartering boards (ICB) and state education agencies (SEA) consistently authorized new charter schools (i.e., authorized one or more schools in at least three of the four years studied). All ICBs authorized at least one school during this period, and only 6 percent of SEAs did not authorize any new schools during this period.

Conversely, only 4 percent of school district authorizers consistently opened new charter schools in the same period. Nearly 65 percent did not open any new schools during this time.

There were five ICBs that did not authorize charter schools in at least three of the four years studied. Of these, two are new authorizers (in 2015 and 2016); one saw its authority to authorize temporarily suspended and then reinstated while its state’s charter law faced a legal challenge; one is a specialty statewide authorizer of virtual schools; and one is an authorizer only able to charter on appeal.

FIGURE 2: FREQUENCY OF CHARTER SCHOOL OPENINGS BY AUTHORIZER TYPE (2013–2016)


All Authorizer Types Opened Fewer Charter Schools, but the Largest Decline Was by Small School District Authorizers

While all types of authorizers experienced a net decline in openings across the study period, the magnitude of decline in new school openings associated with school district authorizers (LEA) is striking. School district authorizers opened 357 new charter schools in 2013. By 2016, they only authorized 135 new schools, a decrease of 222 new schools. To put this into perspective, the total decrease in the number of charter school openings by all other authorizers was 92.

Every type of authorizer has opened fewer new schools each year since 2013, with the exception of independent chartering boards (ICB) and state education agencies (SEA), which experienced a slight increase in 2013 and 2014 before decreasing in subsequent years.

FIGURE 3: CHARTER SCHOOL OPENINGS BY AUTHORIZER TYPE (2013–2016)

The decline in new school openings by school district (LEA) authorizers is prevalent across all charter school portfolio sizes. For example, the number of new school openings by large school district authorizers (i.e., those with 50 or more charter schools) dropped from 91 in 2013 to 32 in 2016, a net decrease of 59 schools.

It is interesting that small school district authorizers (those overseeing less than five charter schools) opened a relatively large number of charter schools in 2013—more than medium or large authorizers. These small school district authorizers also had the greatest net drop across school district authorizers, with a net decrease of 110 new openings.

FIGURE 4: NEW SCHOOL OPENINGS BY SCHOOL DISTRICT (LEA) AUTHORIZERS WITH VARIOUS PORTFOLIO SIZES (2013–2016)